A few weeks ago, midway through the second half of the Hull City game, my Dad turned to me.
Dad: Do you enjoy this?
Me: The football?
Dad: (Waving his arms towards the seated bowl) All of it. The whole thing. This club.
And to be honest, as questions go, it floored me. Over the last few years, I hadn’t actually considered if I was “enjoying it” or whether it had just become habit like brushing my teeth, putting the bins out or shaking my head at those people that park up to buy petrol then proceed to do their weekly shopping in the petrol station while I wait in my car, tutting, for the pump to become available.
It was a great question. Did I enjoy it? Do I enjoy it? I still can’t fully answer that. Over the last two years, I’ve had opportunities that other fans haven’t got or get access to. Now, that doesn’t mean I have bundles of (or any) influence. I’m no one really, just a fan of 30+ years who now has a platform to share his opinions in a structured way and is able to at least talk to people from the club on some level.
As a result of that question and in light of the ever-increasing toxicity which has only got worse over the last few weeks with the postponed games, it did get me properly thinking about the club-fan, fan-club relationship. I spoke to Roger Titford, who is Mr Reading FC in my opinion, about whether this period is the worst in terms of the relationship between the two parties. This was his response:
“It’s an interesting question (thanks, Roger!) and one I’ve never considered. It’s sad to say but I think the club-fan relationship has been like an imperfect 150-year marriage! There are occasional bright honeymoon patches, usually when something new happens, such as turning professional in the 1890s, the Roger Smee era of the mid-1980s or getting into the Premier League in the mid-2000s.
“For a while club and fans really pull together in the face of a new opportunity. But it wears off. Results go wrong, money gets tighter, the shine wears off, and we’re back to attrition and miscommunication. It’s difficult to specify a particularly poor era because when times get bad the fans often make big efforts to mend things (e.g. PANTS/URZ in 1999) and parts of the club respond positively. There’s a reconnection but there’s always the feeling there’s a dominant partner who gets careless.”
That last sentence is key for me. It’s a two-way street, it has to be. So how does that metaphor apply to now? Who’s got careless?
From a fan perspective, it depends how old you are. If you’ve been a fan since the stadium move, you’d definitely say the club. The post-Madejski years have not been kind to our club, but you could say that about any club stalwart leaving (hello Manchester United). If you were the club, you’d blame social media and the sometimes echo-chamber-style posts that bounce around the virtual walls of the fanbase.
Personally, I don’t blame people for being negative about things. I really don’t. I don’t agree with some of the methods used to express the views or the personal attacks some fans employ to do it, but I don’t disagree with some of the sentiments - a lot of it is factual after all. I also would never judge any fan who stopped going to games - it’s expensive, time-consuming and all too often disappointing.
From the club’s perspective, I know there are individuals who care and want to develop the image of the club, but as a body, they don’t do it fully, clearly and emphatically. That’s my personal view by the way, not that of STAR or The Tilehurst End. And although attendances have dropped, there are still supporters out there “making the effort” - buying shirts (if available), attending games, making some noise etc.
So, with all that in mind, what do I think could be done from the club’s perspective to regenerate interest, some goodwill and trust back into this relationship? Here are my ideas:
Re-evaluate, re-do, re-advertise the mission statement. Do our fans know we have one? Is it still relevant? Think back to Alan Pardew’a era: that “tenacity, flair, spirit” slogan was a real winner. When he introduced it to the club, our team wasn’t showing signs of that. But overtime, it became something that everyone bought into. What do we want our club to stand for? What do the top office want our club to stand for? Communicate this clearly to our fanbase as a very first step.
What are the short-term goals for the club? What’s the expectation? How are the manager, coaches, scouts etc being judged? It’s clear that this is unclear (keep up!) and that if the board turned round and went “stay in the league this year, adhere to the finances and move on” then reevaluate in the summer, I think fans would be behind this. That might be short-term, too “tinpot” for some supporters, but we have to start small and build now. That’s the reality of where we are.
Not to the point where they say “Andy Yiadom eats beans on toast as a pre-match meal”, but be clear. For example, has there been an official announcement about the lack of shirts to buy? Again, I can hear people shouting “I DON’T CARE ABOUT SHIRTS BEN”, but a lot of people do. It’s important to them. All decisions should be communicated clearly, especially around matchday. Eg, “we aren’t selling a programme because only 400 people bought it and it was costing £1,500 as a loss each game” (not actual figures, by the way).
As another more solid example, let’s take Mehmet Ali, the previous under-23 coach. The club mentioned him leaving in passing, as part of an interview. Surely, with someone who took up what and I many others seem to believe is a senior coaching role at the club, it would warrant more in-depth and urgent communication to the fans? Clarity, clarity, clarity.
Some of you reading this will then say “don’t STAR help with this communication?”. Yeah, to a point, but it shouldn’t be down to STAR to get answers to stuff that should already be out there to the WHOLE fanbase.
Get employees of the club to speak to the fans. With the fan-led review, the emphasis is on all clubs, not just Reading, to be more transparent with their fans. Football clubs have become closed shops in recent years - we are no exception. Getting key figures to speak to fans, even virtually, would go a long way to redevelop that trust between both parties. What happened to the lengthy player interviews? Let’s get them back. That’s accountability and openness right there.
All of this is coupled with the fact that the team needs to start winning games. Honestly, that’s not something that many people can control. And I know there’s a growing group of you who want Pauno out. I’m Pauno in (I’m not listing my reasons again…), but frankly, it doesn’t matter who the manager is (unless it’s Paul Clement, am I right?!) or who the players are. We all want a club that’s easy to love and care about.
Do I enjoy it? I guess I’m coming to it from a different angle now. I’ve started taking my six-year-old son and that’s given me a new perspective on it. He wants three things:
1. A Reading win
2. Andy Carroll to score
3. Us to sign Romelu Lukaku (thanks FIFA 22)
Ultimately, that’s what we all want. That’s why we all keep going to games. The club need to appreciate it and take active steps to promote and nurture that love and trust. Just like any relationship. That will make us all, hopefully, “enjoy” the whole thing once again.